In becoming aware of Schnabel around 1979 – who, in those days, was showing at the Mary Boone Gallery – I was admittedly skeptical, largely due to the excessive application of objects, such as steer horns, branches, and ceramic plates, that adorned his painted wooden panels. In retrospect, my problem was less with the rancorous appearance of these objects than with the presumed semiotic connections being imposed upon them by that new colony of infestation, “art writers.” In spite of Schnabel’s curious lack of formal demeanor, his ambitions were clearly bent on reviving allegory in painting (and eventually in film). In comparison with the fray of emerging painters of the time, Schnabel’s work had a certain radical touch, somewhat insouciant in comparison with the “Tenth Street touch,” shown by painters twenty-five years earlier. By removing himself from the cynicism employed by commonplace expressionism in the 1980s and 1990s, he positioned himself closer to what astronauts called “the right stuff.” While the broken plates and sprawling tarpaulins did not gel with my minimalist sensibility, they eventually managed to uplift the squandering anti-aesthetic discourse of those decades to a more physical level as painting moved from its soporific semiosis into the limelight of spectacle. Through a series of unhampered surface disruptions, Schnabel transformed the heavily mannered paintings of his early years into a curious, if not elusive lightness outside the reach of Transavantgardia, East Village graffiti, or the kind of American art school painting epitomized by David Salle.
Lightness in painting is difficult to obtain nowadays, and when it occurs, it appears differently then it did in certain Northern Baroque painters, such as the Alsatian steward, Sebastian Stoskopff, or that dour Dutchman, Frans Hals. Yet, by the twenty-first century it appeared necessary to rejuvenate this point of departure in painting toward an instant photographic point of view. Some of the most magnetic photos in this jerky, smudgy sequential portfolio are the sepia-toned and painted, 18 X 24 inch Polaroids of American actor qua wrestler Mickey Rourke. What makes these images of Rourke so appealing is the immense bravura, the tattooed torso, and the unguarded grimace of this postmodern Peter Lorre, this half-crazed, persistently debauched, sex-ridden actor that will go down in history a cut above the pretentiously bewildered dungaree-boy, Johnny Depp. Somehow one cannot avoid praising Schnabel’s generosity as he positions his lens on his subjects. This would include the magnificent aging Lower Eastside rock star, Lou Reed, who bears a simulated King Arthur sword amid the overgrown flora at the artist’s seaside domicile in Montauk, and Herculean tenor Placido Domingo whose feigned machismo reverts to a sublime Etruscan melancholy. There are others, of course, ranging from the perennially elegant actor, Max van Sydow, to the stubbornly coy Christopher Walken. Most touching perhaps are the rough-edged Polaroids of Schnabel’s two sons, Cy and Olmo (the latter’s head is framed in a shawl on the cover of the book). These are the intelligent wild children of nature, youthful fauns in the out-of-doors cavorting in the garden of delights, bearing the pulse of a generation in the throes of conflict twixt the virtual and the tactile realities of human emotion.
There are also a portraits of Frank Stella, Rula Jebreal, and Takashi Murakami – each posing as if for a screen test – clearly casual, yet carefully articulated, each representing selfhood liberated from the director behind the camera. There is an art to doing this, and the art is convincing throughout the book. Even when the scenery appears vague and uninteresting upon first glance, there is an overall sense of a purpose in the photographs, a sense that the subject and the scenery belong to art. Rather than dwelling on objects, Schnabel focuses on light. Rather than the furniture in a room, we are shown an installation. Rather than the pose of a rephotographed psychotic from the 19th Century, we are shown a contortion of a human head slightly tilted to one side. The hands imply an irregular occurrence where the mind rapidly diverts from the presumed innocence of the sitter’s expression.
In turning the pages of these highly engaging and visceral Polaroids – a photographic technology that reached its peak in the early 1970s – I am reminded of Marshall McLuhan’s remark that to make art requires that the artist revert to obsolescent techniques that preceded the latest advance. I immediately relate this to Nam June Paik, known for his ingenious assemblages built from old 1950s TV cabinetry, but it may apply just as well to the work of Schnabel. Polaroids offer a certain arcane accuracy to the user that is full of surprises. Because of the clumsiness of the large camera, it is not always easy to control or to hold in place. As a result, happy accidents may occur, with a kind of accuracy the artist may not have intended. One gets the impression in looking at these Polaroids that Schnabel is somewhere between painting and film-making, and that his life is a constant quest to discover a world that he has not yet experienced.
The culminating affect of this portfolio, edited with an introduction by Petra Giloy-Hirtz, elicits a feeling of intimacy. This raises the question as to whether Schnabel seeks to capture his destiny through a transformation of what is common into some higher level of meaning. I enjoy the suspension of this notion, as it does not force the issue. Instead, there lingers an exuberant, tantalizing world in which everyday life becomes an adventure, filled with emotions that continue to blossom forth as the camera moves happily from one portrait scenario to another, always on the edge of expectancy.
Petra Giloy-Hirtz, Julian Schnabel: Polaroids. New York: Prestel, 2010. ISBN 978-3-7913-5076-9, 192 pp. 100 color illustrations, $49.95print